When the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field Monday night for their 2016 regular season opener, they’ll do so without having the services of fourth-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton, who will miss the game with a shoulder injury.
Wheaton, the Steelers third-round draft pick in 2013, is entering the final year of his rookie contract and will thus be an unrestricted free agent come March. Because of that, the Oregon State product needs a solid 2016 season if he hopes to receive a lucrative contract in 2017 just as former Cincinnati Bengals wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu did this past offseason during free agency.
Wheaton’s career so far in Pittsburgh has been a roller coaster ride of sorts. In addition to catching two or less passes in 24 of the 44 regular-season games that he has appeared in since being drafted, Wheaton also caught a career high 9 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown last season in the Steelers Week 12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Additionally, he managed to register five catches twice in two of the Steelers three playoff games that he has appeared in.
Because of injuries, Wheaton was forced to miss quite a bit of practice and playing time during training camp and the preseason and while experienced when it comes to his knowledge of the Steelers offense, that missed time certainly could affect his usage during the first quarter of the 2016 regular season and especially if he winds up missing more practice time and games moving forward.
Due to the emergence of second-year wide receiver Eli Rogers this past offseason, it’s fairly clear that Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley intends on using him extensively in the slot this upcoming season and especially in three wide receiver personnel groupings. Should that ultimately wind up being the case, Wheaton will be forced to fight with Darrius Heyward-Bey and Sammie Coates for playing time outside and he’ll have to make the most of those opportunities when given them.
Wheaton enters the 2016 regular season with a career reception percentage of 57.9%. Additionally, he’s only caught 39.2% of the deep passes thrown his way during his first three years in the league and has registered just 15 explosive play receptions of 20 yards or more. Those stats aside, perhaps the most concerning one centers around the fact that Wheaton has caught just 47.8% of the passes thrown his direction on third downs during his career, a total of 22 receptions of which 19 resulted in either a first down or touchdown. On top of that, Wheaton has averaged just 3.62 yards after the catch on his 103 total career receptions.
After registering 53 and 44 receptions in each of the last two seasons, Wheaton will likely be lucky to reach 40 catches in 2016 barring any injuries to the other wide receivers currently on the 53-man roster. While he’s sure to receive some playing time as soon as he’s fully healthy, he’ll definitely need to make the most of it.